If you don't have the time to read, you don't have the time or the tools to write.
Bill Cosby, before his name became anathema, released a hilarious album entitled, I Started Out as a Child. (Perhaps that’s a warning to us all about the nature of humanity.) This post isn’t about him, his triumphs or his sins. It’s about beginnings. Like certain body parts, (I was thinking navels) we all have one. The overwhelming majority of writers I know began reading as children and will probably die in old age with a list of books they still want to read.
When I say that, I mean from the moment they learned to read, they read everything they could lay their hands on. I remember reading cereal boxes. I read in the same fashion my grandchildren played video games. The library was like a shrine—a portal to heaven, or at least to distant worlds.
People have told me that I have a gift for writing. God gives gifts as He wills, so maybe that is true in some cosmic sense. However, if that is so, it first manifested in a love of reading. Reading hundreds of books didn’t give me a writing voice. It taught me that writers have a unique voice. It also taught me characters have voices when they talk you should listen.
I had all the English classes that taught grammar, sentence/paragraph structure, themes, and vocabulary that everyone else took. Reading showed me how all those diagrams worked to create pictures with words. If I have a natural gift, it was dormant until watered by reading.
I know writers who say they don’t read so as not to taint their originality and voice. Did you notice the quote by Stephen King that started the blog? Okay, that’s all I got to say about that.
So, what did I read? Here’s my top-ten influencers list. These books have structured my thinking and my take on the universe.
The Bible—the words I read changed my life and still influenced my voice. Does anybody else think in King James?
Mere Christianity—the two facts that determine all clear thinking in the universe.
Collected Works of E.A. Poe—specifically The Tell Tale Heart and Annabelle Lee. The power of words that make you see.
The Abolition of Man—the insidious evil within modern education.
Foxe’s Book of Martyrs—the depths of human cruelty.
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer/Huckleberry Finn—stories and characters don’t have to be regal, wealthy, handsome, or articulate, just honest.
Don Quixote—confirmed that being a reader, dreamer, and a bit odd is okay, even exciting.
Come Nineveh, Come Tyre—the danger of “right” thinking and “right” causes. Scariest book I ever read.
Animal Farm—dangers not questioning/fighting demagoguery.
Civil Disobedience—to thine own self be true.
There they are along with a bit about why I love them. The list is not exhaustive, not by a long way. I’ve read every one of these books multiple times. While Mr. King and I would disagree on just about every issue these books bring to life. We do agree that reading is the stuff of which authors are made. To read well is to write well.